Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Monday, February 04, 2008

"No Continuity - No Interest:" Re-Visiting Godard's PASSION



One of the reader blurbs you find on the imdb.com page for Godard's PASSION (1982) is Eliot Gordon's: "Turned off VCR midway - no interest." The word VCR is, perhaps, key here as the film is world's better on DVD, remastered as part of the new Godard: Director's Series set which includes DETECTIVE, FIRST NAME: CARMEN and OH WOE IS ME. Along with the "Zero stars" ratings are Godard champions over there, of course, who cite that art shouldn't always be "fun." What? In the right mood this film is frickin' HILARIOUS!

My Argentine ex-wife raved about PASSION for years so when I bought her the VHS back in the late 1990s I was really expecting something. Instead I was totally turned off; the reason probably had a lot to with the picture being murky and badly cropped. In the intervening years I've learned a lot about Godard and years of therapy have made me much more open to modernism. I'd use a Zen enlightenment as a metaphor here: Godard's Brechtian "fourth-wall" self-reflexivity functions perfectly as a koan, the unanswerable riddle by which the student can free themselves of entrapping mindsets and let themselves dissolve into satori.

Of course as a cinema fan you invariably come to a Godard film with pre-set responses to cinematic iconography. Godard assumes this and intentionally screws with your expectations. The issue is, how dogmatically do we adhere to the "rightness" of these expectations? When you adhere too closely to predetermined narrative formulations, you have cliche' -- when you deliberately screw with them, you have modernism.

Here's what I mean: you see a knight on a horse trying to scoop up a naked, running maiden--thunderous classical music on the soundtrack, hoofbeats, her frightened panting and shrieks--this generates a certain preconditioned response: will you see this chick being abducted? Will you see the hero ride to her rescue? Where is this hero? Your stomach might clamp in suspense. You fear and hate the knight and want to save the maiden, without even knowing the story (maybe she's a demon in disguise, who knows?) Suddenly the horse pulls up short so it doesn't bump into a moving camera, and the naked maiden runs off set and hides behind the cameraman then she goes climbing up into the lighting rigging so the knight can't reach her, so he dismounts and goes to have a smoke.

There's two ways you can react to all that: one is to be angry or frustrated, to think you are "missing" something. Are they filming a movie within a movie here, or is this real? Why is she still running if she's not on camera? Who's filming this second movie about making the movie? The other is to grasp the ambiguity, the modern art/Zen response Godard is creating, and thus to laugh at your own predisposition to get so absorbed into narrative that you fight its cessation. For this second response, you are freed by realizing that the meltdown between the film and the film-within-the-film is intended to provide this response. Can you let go of your expectations, your obsessive need for character arcs, story lines, and dramatic resolution? If you can, you begin to see the ways film tricks you. Can you stand to watch stock characters and cliche types get melted down into meaninglessness? Will this technique frustrate you beyond endurance, or set you free from your steel trap mind?

Another example of Godard's humor involves a very young Isabelle Huppert as a a rhetoric-spouting worker on roller skates, a sort of loose riff on Agnes Varda's VAGABOND, who disrupts life at the factory at which she is employed. Michel Piccoli owns the factory and refuses to pay her back wages so she hangs around and is chased by cops. In one scene, she's rollerskating around the factory floor as others are working and discussing with the director how "films never show people working" and then adds "The factories won't allow it." The ironic joke here (obviously there is a camera filming her saying this in the factory surrounded by workers) is not stated, not spelled out in big American letters, you either grab it and move on or not. Godard is not going to stop and underline the script for your with a yellow marker, you American fascist swine!

Perhaps one needs a firm sense of the deadpan and absurd (watch some Marx Brothers or Police Squad movies beforehand) to appreciate PASSION's wry humor. If you get a headache from it, maybe you're holding onto your cinematic signifiers with the tenacity of Margaret Dumont; you have to just let them go. It's only then--Godard implies--that you can begin to see that all the world's a cave and all your presuppositions merely shadows on the wall. Be aware of your brain's trickery, its constant bending of the chaos of life into a 3-act structure, and stroll out of the cave. PASSION is a finger pointing towards the exit. If you just look at the finger you may well be bored out of your mind, but if you follow the direction, you might finally get to see the sun. A lot of folks are so afraid of that sun they deny it even exists. But it does, so drop your crucifixion shears and hobble along to PASSION!

3 comments:

  1. Maybe I will have to re-watch this film. The first time I watched it I couldn't stand it.

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  2. My general rule of thumb with Goddard is that he was a pretentious ass who made good movies until the late 60's after which he has been just a pretentious ass. I always liked Truffaut better.

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